Journalists for The New York Times leave Colombia after being attacked online by public officials

A reporter and photojournalist who work for The New York Times in Colombia left the country after being targeted with stigmatizing remarks from congress members of the ruling party and online harassment in response to an article published in the newspaper regarding the Colombian Armed Forces.

The accusations began when the Times published a report on May 18 by Nicholas Casey detailing the existence of a document that pressures Army officials to increase their results, especially deaths and captures, in the fight against active guerrillas and criminal groups in the country.

The concern between two Army officials, with whom Casey spoke, according to the text, allegedly had to do with the danger that these directives represent for the civilian population. Pressure for results and incentives for the military to comply with them couldrevive the so-called "false positives,” that is, killings of civilians who were posed as criminals by the military, according to the article.

After the publication, congresswoman María Fernanda Cabal – of the ruling Democratic Center party – published a tweet with two photos purportedly of Casey with members of the FARC guerrilla during alleged previous reports by the journalist.

“This is the 'journalist' Nicholas Casey, who in 2016 was on tour with the FARC in the jungle. How much will they pay him for this story ? And for the one now, against the Colombian army? #CaseyEsFakeNews (CaseyIsFakeNews)," the congresswoman wrote.

Also, Congressman Juan David Vélez, of the same party, published a Tweet with one of the same supposed photos of Casey, but that really is Federico Ríos, an independent Colombian photojournalist who works for various media like the Times. In the picture, Ríos is seen with his camera in position to take a photograph, mounted on a motorcycle that is driven by a member of the FARC.

As Ríos explained to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the photo was taken at a guerrilla camp during a previous job. In recent years, Ríos has covered the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerrilla group.

In this tweet, Congressman Velez compares “the journalist of @nytimes” with a criminal who "points with the camera and shoots columns full of slander." "There are opinion hitmen," the congressman wrote.

Rios did not even work on the article by Casey, but on others published days before, according to what the photojournalist told CPJ.

However, these two publications from the congress members were enough for the two journalists to begin receiving accusations and online harassment by Twitter users, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP).

That same day, through the NYTimes Communications account on Twitter, the newspaper said that it "does not take sides in any political conflict anywhere in the world."

“In Colombia we have written very harsh stories about the FARC, rebel groups and other criminal organizations. In this case, we simply report what the documents written by the army say, as well as information from the Colombian officials themselves," the newspaper said in response to congresswoman Cabal's tweet.

On Sunday, May 19, according to FLIP, both reporters announced that they were leaving the country as a result of these accusations.

As the photojournalist told El Colombiano, both left at dawn that Sunday. "That Tweet unleashes a wave of Tweets and accusations through social networks. The newspaper makes a security assessment and they decide that it is better to leave," Ríos told the newspaper.

“FLIP calls on officials and political leaders to look after the environment in which freedom of expression is exercised in Colombia, we invite them to handle their disputes with the media being aware of the power their voice and the effects they can have on their followers. For this it is essential that they refrain from making stigmatizing statements against the press," the organization wrote in a statement. “Regarding this case, FLIP requests a special observation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Attorney General's Office and the Ombudsman's Office."

After FLIP expressed concern about the situation of the journalists, the former president of Colombia and current congressman from the same Democratic Center party, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, took to Twitter and accused FLIP of losing "its meritorious objective" by defending "the bias of 'journalists' that end in the protection of narco-terrorism and in the defamation against the Armed Forces of Colombia."

CPJ expressed its concern not only for the journalistic work in Colombia but also for the work of organizations such as FLIP that try to protect press freedom.

“Lawmakers have the right to question any piece of reporting, but dangerous and irresponsible comments like those made against Nicholas Casey have the potential to endanger his security and discourage reporting on sensitive issues in Colombia," said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna, in a press release.

“In a dangerous environment such as the one faced by the press in Colombia, it is of the utmost importance that journalists and press freedom organizations like the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) not be attacked by lawmakers simply for doing their jobs."

The government of Iván Duque, through his vice president and presidential adviser for human rights, said he respects freedom of the press in the country, rejects threats against this right and that no journalist should have to leave the country, reported the FLIP.

In the U.S., the accusations against the journalist also had repercussions. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy wrote on his Twitter account that Duque's government should demand evidence from Congresswoman Cabal of her accusations against Casey. He added that if there is no evidence, Duque should make a public complaint.

On May 19, congressman Vélez released a statement saying that “he has exercised a continuous defense for the Institutions and for the Armed Forces of Colombia” and that “defense of free expression as a fundamental principle of all citizens must be done regardless of their profession.”

The congressman however does not explain his comparison between journalism and armed crime in Colombia. "A few hours ago, I published a Tweet making an analogy about the activities carried out by the author of an article published in The New York Times. The freedom of expression can not be censored, and less by those who are being questioned and believe themselves owners of an absolute truth." He added that there are "obligations" to "exercise information activity."

On May 22 it was revealed that the Army will modify the document denounced by the Times "to avoid misinterpretations," El Tiempo reported. However, Casey wrote in his Twitter account, that two orders still exist that are worrying.

"One is the order to 'double the results' of operations; the other is 'not to demand perfection 'and launch operations with '60 -70%' of credibility. Doubts remain," the journalist wrote.